Here is an audio capture of “Possibility Abstracts: Taylor Ho Bynum, Nathaniel Mackeyand Discrepancy,” a paper I delivered in Prague, in the Czech Republic, on 18 July 2014 as part of the vs. Interpretation symposium, sponsored by the Agosto Foundation. The text riffs on the epistolary form of Nathaniel Mackey’s serial novel, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, particularly the fourth volume, Bass Cathedral, on which Taylor Ho Bynum draws for his modular composition Navigation, versions of which he recorded with his sextet for release on Firehouse 12 records late last year. (See firehouse12records.com/album/navigat…12-recordings.) For me, this music is a contemporary masterpiece, negotiating the liminal zone – the discrepancies – between the improvised and the composed, and doing so in such as way as to creatively undo that rather careless binary. There is an excellent review of Navigation by Stuart Broomer in Point of Departure.
Over the last decade, using various undergraduate and graduate classes as provisional testing grounds, I have been trying to develop what I have come to think of as an improvisational pedagogy. By “improvisational pedagogy” I don’t just mean teaching about criticism of improvisation and the performing arts (music, theatre, dance . . .), although such work certainly forms part of what I might do. And I don’t necessarily mean teaching classes on how to improvise, although techniques derived from the hands-on practice of various forms of improvisation constitute significant elements in a nascent methodology. I mean, I think, an educational practice that engages in real time with its own cognitive, creative and critical horizons, the self-attentive work of thinking on your feet, both before and with other people.
In forthcoming posts over the next few months, I’m planning to write in better detail about what I feel are some of the significant learning outcomes of such a pedagogy – including remarks on technique and nascent methodology, on student reactions, on literacy and critical canon, and on what others in the emerging field have called “the ethics of co-creation” – but for now I want to restrict myself to laying a little personal groundwork for this field of study. I have been participating this past week, telematically, in a think-tank at Memorial University, convened by the new International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, aimed at producing a draft curriculum for a potential graduate program for the study of improvisation. Some tangible results of our discussions and our collective commitment to this process will no doubt emerge in the coming year as this program takes shape, but for the moment I want to note how apparent it became during our meetings that we needed not only to define our field but to do so in a manner that distinguishes its salient characteristics, the traits and tactics that set it apart.
This conceptual winnowing, however, is particularly challenging around the study of improvisation because of its ubiquity: a fact that makes it both essential to study and seemingly impossible to frame as an object of study. At its core, improvisation articulates a deliberate elusiveness; whatever else it does, improvisation defines itself across a vast array of social and cultural practices as a refusal of the definitive, as excess. Whatever else – to repurpose an unsettled line from the self-troubling poet Irving Layton – whatever else, improvisation is freedom. It inclines, in all of its multiple and incommensurate forms, toward “whatever else,” toward not being an “it” at all, constantly worrying at and unknitting the hard knot of that “is” in definitions such as this. It’s a modality, for me, of creative undoing.
improvisation is everywhere, but it is very hard to see. That’s because improvisation is not really a philosophical Haltung for a few people living the artist’s life, but a fundamental mode of being in the world that all of us share.
Everybody improvises, all the time. But next to no one appears to attend with much care or acuity to the implications of the forms and practices of improvisation; like Lewis, and despite my privileging of aesthetic in my own teaching and writing, I don’t mean to aggrandize the role of the critic or the artist or the pedagogue in raising such reflexive awareness, but rather – through Lewis – to affirm the political necessity of such study within democratic space, within the culturally and socially managed domains of that sharing. Improvisation, Lewis asserts, “is the ubiquitous practice of everyday life, a primary method of meaning exchange in any interaction,” but that primacy remains largely unaddressed and under-scrutinized. The task, as Lewis understands it, is first of all to illuminate “the condition of improvisation,” and then to interrogate its affective and material impacts on the conduct of human life:
My overall view of improvisation, which can be described (if not defined) as exploration, discovery and response to conditions, part of a ubiquitous human practice of real-time analysis, generation, manipulation, exchange, and transformation of meaning, mediated by (among other factors) the body, history, temporality, space, memory, intention, material culture, and diverse methodologies. My claim is that improvisation is fundamental to the existence and survival of every human formation, from the individual to the community, through the postnational body to the species itself.
This is a big claim for what has been, by his own admission, a neglected and marginalized field of study, but I want to be clear that I hear his interdisciplinary sweep not as apologetics or as rhetoric, but as a genuine imperative. Improvisation names a fundamental human relationship to temporality and to historicity, and offers a distinct and crucial means – however plural and however elusive – to address who and when and where we are.
In an effort to stabilize improvisation into something like a concept, I want to invoke Michel Foucault’s reworking of the Aristotelean ἐπιστήμη or “science.” In The Order of Things, Foucault deploys the term episteme to refer to a way of knowing that pervades specific cultural or historical epochs:
In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice.
As a “field of scientificity,” an episteme doesn’t define a particular science (Latin scientia, “knowledge, a knowing; expertness”) so much as the range and limits of the truth-value of science as such: what counts and what doesn’t count as knowledge. This formulation strikes me as too inherently rigid, but in as much as improvisation both shapes and evaluates the immediate production and dissemination of knowledge in our present age, in as much as it might name historicity as such – a ubiquitous set of human relations both to and within ordinary time – it strikes me that it might be useful to think it through as one among several entwined episteme of our given moment, as a name for the enactive articulations and mobilizations of knowledge in the human present. Thinking improvisation along these lines – despite Foucault’s early and I think untenable tendency to want conceptually to reduce and to homogenize – might offer an opportunity to describe, if not to define, a finite set of modalities within an extemporaneous science, modalities of knowing less prehensile, less closed and enclosing, than we might expect,— including listening (or better, aisthesis), practicing, collaboration, intersubjectivity, reciprocity, alterity. Improvising might be better understood neither as a method nor as a discrete modality of knowledge creation, but more as a resonant network of commensurate modalities. This list a merely a starting point, and such modalities would need to be much more rigorously investigated and situated, but at least for the present such terminology may offer a means of settling on something approaching a basis for thinking through improvisation.